.
A

side from COVID-19, one of the other topics to receive widespread attention in 2020 has been the way individuals are attacked on social media. It’s within this context that 153 scholars and writers published the Harper’s Letter, which denounced a new “vogue for public shaming and ostracism.” Or, in other words: cancel culture.

Cancel culture refers to when support for a person, group, company, or even cultural product is censored or removed, owing to moral objections. Unlike traditional forms of censorship, cancel culture nearly always starts through digital movements and tends to be driven by the public at large. Through social media platforms, citizens can circumvent established hierarchies and institutions—from op-ed columns to newsrooms—to enforce cultural influence and conformity.

The idea of censorship by the mob is not new. Jon Ronson sheds light on this in his work, So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, which explores how the age-old tradition of public shaming has re-emerged in the internet era. In medieval times, public punishment took place by jeering crowds in the village square. Now, the mob inflicts its justice online.

Yet the cultural censorship imposed by these digital movements may be overstated. Governments, now more than ever, silence people and ideas much more effectively—and this, rather than cancel culture by the digital mob, is the more serious concern.

Earlier this summer, the Indian government decided to ban TikTok, a popular video-sharing social networking site, alongside 50 or so other Chinese apps including WeChat and Baidu following clashes between Indian soldiers and Chinese troops at the disputed Himalayan border. With an estimated 200 million users in the country, India was TikTok’s largest market outside of China. Given the many artists, storytellers, and educators in India used the platform for cultural and political expression, and, in some cases, as a source of income, it is questionable whether “cancelling” TikTok appropriately balances security concerns with the right to free speech.

The Trump administration recently announced a Clean Network initiative, which could be used to censor Chinese apps from American app stores, based on ostensible security concerns. This follows an emerging debate about whether TikTok could be banned in the United States. Whilst the President appears to have changed his mind on the ban for the moment, some commentators and social media users questioned whether the real reason behind the proposed ban was because of Sarah Cooper, the actress and comedian who posts videos of her lip syncing the President’s speeches and interviews. Others have pointed to the teenage K-pop fans, many of whom mobilized on the platform to disrupt the President’s rally in Tulsa, as a motivation for the proposed ban.

Whether these bans are motivated by geopolitics or an attempt to stifle domestic political dissent, it shows that governments will weaponize the digitally mediated public sphere for their own purposes. Digital censorship isn’t a hypothetical issue. We have seen how this has played out in China, a country which has used its “Great Firewall” to regulate the internet domestically, and ban many social networks, including Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

This growing trend of government-led bans and boycotts also reveals one of the key shortcomings of the notion of cancel culture. Cancel culture places the emphasis on movements operating within digital spaces, while forgetting that government censorship poses a threat to the existence to these spaces in the first place. In this sense, governments pose a much greater threat to freedom of speech.

Although we may not like everything we see on social media, the medium provides a rich environment for cultural transmission and political expression. During this summer alone, we have seen many cultural and political movements—from racial justice to women’s empowerment—gain traction on social media. This is the public sphere, and it should be protected as such.

This threat to free speech is not just reserved to a single target, but is manifesting across social and digital media platforms around the world. In the past few weeks, we’ve seen new regulations passed in Hungary, Turkey, and Hong Kong, limiting freedom of speech for citizens and silencing digital dissent. These policies are far more restrictive and socially destructive than any consequence of being “cancelled” on a platform like Twitter or TikTok.

This isn’t just a problem for the digital age. Throughout history, the most acute examples of cultural censorship have been driven by the state. In 1947, the Hollywood Ten, composed of ten directors and screenwriters were subpoenaed, persecuted, and purged by the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). Refusing to answer the Committee’s questions about their alleged involvement with the Communist Party, the 10 individuals were sentenced and blacklisted, and could not work in Hollywood again.

From Hollywood films to 15-second TikTok videos, governments need to protect the places and channels by which diverging views are expressed and discussed. What starts with a ban based on unsubstantiated claims can quickly escalate into something more sinister.

This is the attack on free speech we should all be concerned about. And, increasingly, governments are using their power to cancel it.

About
Daniella Lebor
:
Daniella Lebor is a director and co-lead of APCO’s Digital Strategy team in Europe. An award-winning communication specialist, Ms. Lebor is one of APCO’s Key Client Initiative (KCI) Leaders, responsible for leading integrated reputation and advocacy campaigns for complex international clients.
The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.

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www.diplomaticourier.com

Forget Cancel Culture: Governments Pose a Much Greater Threat to Freedom of Speech

Photo by Prateek Katyal via Unsplash.

August 10, 2020

A

side from COVID-19, one of the other topics to receive widespread attention in 2020 has been the way individuals are attacked on social media. It’s within this context that 153 scholars and writers published the Harper’s Letter, which denounced a new “vogue for public shaming and ostracism.” Or, in other words: cancel culture.

Cancel culture refers to when support for a person, group, company, or even cultural product is censored or removed, owing to moral objections. Unlike traditional forms of censorship, cancel culture nearly always starts through digital movements and tends to be driven by the public at large. Through social media platforms, citizens can circumvent established hierarchies and institutions—from op-ed columns to newsrooms—to enforce cultural influence and conformity.

The idea of censorship by the mob is not new. Jon Ronson sheds light on this in his work, So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, which explores how the age-old tradition of public shaming has re-emerged in the internet era. In medieval times, public punishment took place by jeering crowds in the village square. Now, the mob inflicts its justice online.

Yet the cultural censorship imposed by these digital movements may be overstated. Governments, now more than ever, silence people and ideas much more effectively—and this, rather than cancel culture by the digital mob, is the more serious concern.

Earlier this summer, the Indian government decided to ban TikTok, a popular video-sharing social networking site, alongside 50 or so other Chinese apps including WeChat and Baidu following clashes between Indian soldiers and Chinese troops at the disputed Himalayan border. With an estimated 200 million users in the country, India was TikTok’s largest market outside of China. Given the many artists, storytellers, and educators in India used the platform for cultural and political expression, and, in some cases, as a source of income, it is questionable whether “cancelling” TikTok appropriately balances security concerns with the right to free speech.

The Trump administration recently announced a Clean Network initiative, which could be used to censor Chinese apps from American app stores, based on ostensible security concerns. This follows an emerging debate about whether TikTok could be banned in the United States. Whilst the President appears to have changed his mind on the ban for the moment, some commentators and social media users questioned whether the real reason behind the proposed ban was because of Sarah Cooper, the actress and comedian who posts videos of her lip syncing the President’s speeches and interviews. Others have pointed to the teenage K-pop fans, many of whom mobilized on the platform to disrupt the President’s rally in Tulsa, as a motivation for the proposed ban.

Whether these bans are motivated by geopolitics or an attempt to stifle domestic political dissent, it shows that governments will weaponize the digitally mediated public sphere for their own purposes. Digital censorship isn’t a hypothetical issue. We have seen how this has played out in China, a country which has used its “Great Firewall” to regulate the internet domestically, and ban many social networks, including Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

This growing trend of government-led bans and boycotts also reveals one of the key shortcomings of the notion of cancel culture. Cancel culture places the emphasis on movements operating within digital spaces, while forgetting that government censorship poses a threat to the existence to these spaces in the first place. In this sense, governments pose a much greater threat to freedom of speech.

Although we may not like everything we see on social media, the medium provides a rich environment for cultural transmission and political expression. During this summer alone, we have seen many cultural and political movements—from racial justice to women’s empowerment—gain traction on social media. This is the public sphere, and it should be protected as such.

This threat to free speech is not just reserved to a single target, but is manifesting across social and digital media platforms around the world. In the past few weeks, we’ve seen new regulations passed in Hungary, Turkey, and Hong Kong, limiting freedom of speech for citizens and silencing digital dissent. These policies are far more restrictive and socially destructive than any consequence of being “cancelled” on a platform like Twitter or TikTok.

This isn’t just a problem for the digital age. Throughout history, the most acute examples of cultural censorship have been driven by the state. In 1947, the Hollywood Ten, composed of ten directors and screenwriters were subpoenaed, persecuted, and purged by the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). Refusing to answer the Committee’s questions about their alleged involvement with the Communist Party, the 10 individuals were sentenced and blacklisted, and could not work in Hollywood again.

From Hollywood films to 15-second TikTok videos, governments need to protect the places and channels by which diverging views are expressed and discussed. What starts with a ban based on unsubstantiated claims can quickly escalate into something more sinister.

This is the attack on free speech we should all be concerned about. And, increasingly, governments are using their power to cancel it.

About
Daniella Lebor
:
Daniella Lebor is a director and co-lead of APCO’s Digital Strategy team in Europe. An award-winning communication specialist, Ms. Lebor is one of APCO’s Key Client Initiative (KCI) Leaders, responsible for leading integrated reputation and advocacy campaigns for complex international clients.
The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.